Babies With Three Parents: Is This A Green Light For The End Of Disability?
There’s something very scary on the front page of today’s Guardian. They report that the UK government has backed a new IVF technique that uses DNA from three people.
This means that babies could have three biological parents- one father and two mothers. It sounds like the stuff of science fiction.
The technique, known as mitochondrial transfer, would allow doctors to prevent major childhood diseases- and genetic physical disabilities such as muscular dystrophy. These are passed on through the genes of a mother.
It was pioneered in Britain at Newcastle University, and targets conditions known as mitochondrial disorders. These affect parts of the body that need the most energy, including the brain and muscles.
The move was announced in London yesterday by Dame Sally Davies, the chief medical officer for England. She called the procedure a ‘life saving treatment.’
A consultation by the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority published in March suggested the public was generally supportive of the technology. Draft regulations are expected to be ready this autumn.
If MPs approve regulations due to be debated in parliament next year, Britain would be the first country to offer the radical treatment. Doctors would be able to apply for permission to offer the procedure on the NHS before the end of 2014.
The procedure makes genetic modifications to an embryo that will pass down to all future generations. So there could be unforeseen complications much later for any babies born in this way. Also, although the technique has been shown to work in animals, it has never been tested in humans so far.
These are serious concerns which must be carefully considered before this idea goes any further. However, neither of these are the main reason why the idea worries me.
This idea raises many serious ethical issues. As a person disabled since birth, the ethical issues that most concern me relate to disability, disabled people and the value of our lives.
My personal belief has always been that every life is equally valuable. However, what does the idea of eliminating genetic disabilities suggest about the value of the lives of people who already have these conditions? What does it suggest about the value of the lives of people who are born disabled whose conditions are not genetic? About the value of the lives of those who become disabled later in life due to an accident?
Are our lives worth so little that potential parents should be encouraged to consider doing something so drastic, so unnatural, to eliminate the possibility of having a child like us?
Parenthood takes much more than biology, but there’s no doubt that biology is very important. Don’t women with faulty mitochondria deserve the joy of having their own, biological children? Or is there a suggestion that they can somehow help having this fault in their DNA? Surely they can’t- any more than disabled people can help being disabled.
The idea of the procedure being available on the NHS- to anyone, for free, is something that I find particularly worrying.
By giving a green light to the possibility of this procedure, has the Government also given a green light to the start of a world without people born with disabilities? Are we, today, one step closer to such a world?
What does that say about how people like me, who are born disabled, are seen by the mainstream world we live in today, where this procedure is not yet available?
A final, even more worrying thought. In a world where no one is born with a disability, how will those who become disabled later in life be treated?
The idea of babies having three parents will sound, to most, like it has come from another planet. It has certainly given me thoughts that have left me shivering with fear.